Artemisia Gentileschi is an artist whose time has more than come. New acquisitions of her work continue to emerge with great fanfare into the gallery spaces of the world’s most august art institutions, the most recent being the Getty Museum’s acquisition of her Lucretia (1627). In 2020, London’s National Gallery built an important show around the acquisition of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17). Gentileschi’s paintings are reentering a world in which not nearly enough has changed for women since the time when she was painting her original visions. In a climate of feminist protest, in which women’s voices are rightly loud and insistent, Gentileschi’s work retains a force of resonance, a relevance, that renders it as compelling and urgent as ever it was.
Not least, the parallel between Gentileschi’s experience of taking a rape complaint to trial and the experiences of women today who enter a courtroom in the hope of obtaining justice is painfully obvious. It is by now impossible to approach Gentileschi’s oeuvre without knowledge of this crime against her, and of the horror of her trial. The MeToo movement has highlighted how common it is for women to experience the crime of sexual assault and how rarely such crimes are punished. Society continues to accommodate systemic violence against women and girls. The crime of rape, then, is apposite to women’s reception of her work at this contemporary moment. It cannot be evacuated from Gentileschi’s history as an artist without enacting a distortion.
Yet too often, Gentileschi’s works of art have been framed as materially indexical to her rape, as symptoms arising from a private trauma. At their worst, such framings figure Gentileschi’s artistic agency as secondary to that of her abusers, whose actions not only “author” her works but provide their natural interpretive framework. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between telling the whole of the important story of this female artist and allowing the undoubted quality and originality of her work to stand on its own terms. This can only take place outside of the tired psychobiographical framework that serves only to suppress Gentileschi’s painterly originality within a reductive teleological narrative of victimhood.
Eminent scholar, founding member of the field of feminist art history and pioneer of Artemisia Gentileschi studies, Mary D. Garrard is perhaps uniquely equipped to plot a course through these rocky waters. If, as Garrard argues, the repetition and magnification of artists and their work is a central strategy for canon formation, then Garrard is rightly feted for having been responsible for some of the most effective and transformative repetition and magnification of women’s art in the discipline of art history. Her new book represents a new and full account of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life and work. There are seven chapters, organised around recurring and important themes in Gentileschi’s work. This structure facilitates an interrogation of the contemporary visual and literary context illuminating these pictures and their subjects – their Judiths, Susannas, Lucretias, musicians, saints and allegorical figurations.
Garrard’s strategy of situating Gentileschi’s paintings within the contemporary writing and patronage of women avoids the shallows, contextualising the paintings within a broad and lively field of female authorship, creativity and crucially, feminism avant-la-lettre. This does not render the emotion in Gentileschi’s paintings insubstantial, but rather rebalances it against a feminist intellectual ballast, recuperating this extraordinary artist’s richness and range. It reframes Gentileschi’s work as a deliberate intervention in public debate.
Garrard’s book establishes Gentileschi very firmly as a player within the artistic and intellectual networks spanning Europe’s great courts and cities. This is really fascinating stuff, which, moreover, serves to situate Gentileschi’s art within a transterritorial conversation, as visual currency circulating within an intellectual exchange, that both draws on and responds emphatically to contemporary discourses. Moreover, Garrard demonstrates how Gentileschi’s paintings intervened in the flourishing feminist debates then known as the querelles des femmes, resituating her oeuvre within a lively community of early modern women who thought, knew, spoke, wrote, performed and painted. Intriguingly, Garrard argues that Gentileschi’s painting visualises this community of women as one which crosses class lines. Garrard extends this idea beautifully throughout, showing how Gentileschi’s work too spans historical time, forming a rallying point for the entry of new members into this feminist community persevering into our own present day.
While acknowledging the dangers of the biographical fallacy, Garrard makes a good case for reading Gentileschi’s pictures with her biography in mind. She argues convincingly for the painter’s use of her own likeness in her paintings, a matter of some recent debate. Garrard’s love for her subject is apparent, certainly no bad thing, and her connoisseurial, but also heartfelt, engagement with her subject produces a rich intimacy in her treatment of the artist’s history. Garrard’s use of the painter’s first name throughout is indicative of this intimacy, which feels very genuine, even ethical, as the evident product of so many years of patient study (I don’t claim the same privilege for myself here, although Garrard’s point about the status of Gentileschi’s celebrity, her name brand recognition, is well made). Accordingly, Garrard works hard to centre the originality of Gentileschi’s style, of her painterly voice, and points to several areas fertile for new research, not least, early modern women’s feminist patronage of women artists.
This intimacy extends into Garrard’s formal discussions of Gentileschi’s paintings, their remarkably palpable women, livid with corporeality, their straining hands, solid forearms and locked elbows, their stolid calm in the face of blood and danger. Gentileschi’s painting of women psychologically and physically absorbed in the back-breaking work of political murder, their total commitment to assassination, retains the power to arrest the gaze. Both Gentileschi and Garrard debunk the cherished myth that women of early modern Europe were all as modest and submissive as the conduct literature of their own day and an art historiography rooted in the nineteenth century would have them be.
The book’s approach stands on it own in quite a busy field. Much is being published on Artemisia Gentileschi right now, but nothing quite like this. The book is written in an engaging and conversational style appealing to a generalist audience, but there is plenty here for specialists to value. As standard with Reaktion Books, there are lovely endpapers and a cloth cover, and many high quality colour reproductions. There is a useful bibliography. A small caveat: I would have liked more information in the image captions, where the dimensions of paintings and their locations are not usually listed; it’s important for us to know the scale at which Gentileschi worked.
Dr Sara Ayres
Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University